Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Thursday, May 01, 2003

OSHA Kills

Read it here.

If you check out OSHA's Website, you'll find a page entitled OSHA Saves Lives. "Not so," say "scholars" at the Mercatus Center. Despite OSHA's director John Henshaw's assertion that “Safety and health add value to businesses, workplaces and people's lives,” a recent study by two authors from the anti-government Mercatus Institute argues that, in fact, OSHA inspections actually cause more workplace fatalities.

How so, you ask? Well I can't begin to describe the statistical methods that the two authors, Jonathan Klick and Thomas Stratmann, both of George Mason University, used to come to this conclusion in their study. I'll leave the deconstruction to those who can understand statistics better than I. You can also read a simpler, abbreviated version of the study if visit your local newsstand and pick up the latest copy of Regulation magazine, published by the right-wing, libertarian Cato Institute. (It doesn't appear in electronic form.)

The most interesting part is their explanation of this phenomenon. From the Regulation article, here it is in a nutshell:
Surprisingly, we found that fines have no statistically significant effect on death rates and increasing inspections actually leads to significantly higher fatality rates. On average, we found that an additional 100 inspections in a given state-industry in a particular year leads to between 1 and 2.5 additional deaths in that industry

What accounts for such a surprising result?...When the firm increases its efforts because of OSHA enforcement, the worker rationally substitutes away from his own efforts. That is, if the firm is doing more to protect the worker, the worker has less incentive to protect himself. (emphases added)
So, let me get this straight. You have a bunch of employees in a dangerous workplace. OSHA inspects the workplace, finds violations and cites the company, which starts paying more attention to workplace safety. But, "increased worker safety measures induce riskier behaviors on the part of workers," according to the abstract of the study.

The typical "rational" worker, figuring that OSHA has forced his employer to be more responsible, now "has less incentive to protect himself." No sooner does the employer finally get serious about safety then workers suddenly start jumping down into unshored trenches, crawling down into unmonitored confined spaces, sticking themselves with HIV-contaminated needles and climbing tall buildings without fall protection. "Respirators? We don't need no stinking respirators!"

It must be so, because, according to its web page, Mercatus boasts that "We draw upon both real world experience and wide reading in multiple academic disciplines."

The report is almost not worth analyzing, but a few things stick out. Most glaring is the authors' assumption that injuries and fatalities are caused by workers' unsafe behaviors and actions.(For more on behavioralism, see here and here.) When management takes care of safety (under pressure from OSHA), workers somehow won't feel they have to "behave" safely. Well if the authors actually had an "real world experience" they'd know that the reason workers are injured and killed at work is because they are exposed to unsafe conditions and hazards.

One thing they did get right. If workers are not involved in the employer's safety program -- in identifying and controlling hazards -- the program is unlikely to be effective.

So who are these guys? Cato is a well endowed "libertarian" Washington D.C. think tank that "seeks to broaden the parameters of public policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace." They publish Regulation magazine, which regularly features anti-regulation and articles about the benefits of abolishing OSHA.

The Mercatus Center is part of George Mason University. They are known for coming out with annual reports on the (high) cost of regulations to American business , and other papers arguing for the abolition of OSHA. The director of the Mercatus Regulatory Studies Program is Wendy Gramm, George H.W. Bush's Administrator for Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget and Executive Director of the Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief.

Not appearing on Gramm's resume is the fact that she is the wife of former right-wing Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) and a former member of the Enron Board of Directors. The George Mason/Mercatus campus also happened to be where the Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao decided to hold one of her three ergonomics "forums," after the Congress and Bush Administration repealed the ergonomics standard.

I am nominating this study as a future member of the Loony Right-Wing Theory Hall of Fame. It's reminiscent of a theory pushed by the Office of Management and Budget under George Bush I which postulated that health and safety regulations led to higher worker fatality rates because regulations cost businesses money, forcing them to pay workers less. The lower one's income, the worse their diet, leading to all kinds of bad health effects.

Oh, and the surprising conclusion of the Regulation article: "If workers effectively undo safety regulations, it is doubtful that OSHA can do much to "save lives, prevent injuries, and protect the health of American workers."

For this I stay up late at night?


Go To My Main Page

Google Groups Subscribe to Confined Space
Browse Archives at

Search WWW Search Confined Space


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this Blog are my own and do not, in any way, shape or form, reflect or represent the views or policies of my employer. Links to or from other websites of individuals or organizations do not constitute an endorsement of these views.
Looking for Confined Space Safety Information?
Click Here

Search Web Search Confined Space

Greatest Hits

BP Texas City Explosion Stories

2006 Mine Disaster Stories

Popcorn Lung Stories

Speech on Receiving the APHA Lorin Kerr Award
by Jordan Barab, November 9, 2004

Acts of God, Acts of Man," by Jordan Barab, Working USA

Lies, Partisanship Caused Ergo Standard to Crumble, by Jordan Barab, Safety + Health, February 2002

A Week of Death, by Jordan Barab, Hazards, February 5, 2003


March 2003
April 2003
May 2003
June 2003
July 2003
August 2003
September 2003
October 2003
November 2003
December 2003
January 2004
February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007

Recent Posts


Koufax Award

For Best Single Issue Blog of 2003 and 2004